Palatka High’s RoboPanthers eye state robotics competition

The Palatka High School RoboPanthers have the world of science, technology, engineering and math at their fingertips, but they hope to soon put a state robotics competition in their grasp.

“For being a first-year team, it is exceptional to be this high (in state rankings),” team mentor Robert Knutsen said. 

The RoboPanthers robotics team launched in September at Palatka High after Georgia-Pacific learning specialist Knutsen and media relations manager Terry Hadaway approached the school about competing in First Tech Challenge competitions throughout the state. 

Knutsen said he and Hadaway were both involved with high school robotics teams at a previous mill, but a team had yet to be created in Putnam County. 

“This is a good way to raise locally-grown, quality employees,” Hadaway said. “It’s a way to open career doors. Workforce development.”

RoboPanthers coach Jan Boland’s engineering students were the first to get on board. Hadaway said Georgia-Pacific invested $5,000 to purchase equipment for the team.

Each First Team Challenge competition team designs a robot that starts with the same dimensions, but can expand as the robot competes in an arena, tossing balls and displaying its robotic abilities during a 2.5-minute game. Robo Panthers control the robot with two game console controllers attached to cell phones. Another cell phone is attached to the robot, and the phones communicate through an application. 

To draw the interest of students, Knutsen said, the Robo Panthers invited another robotics team to Palatka High for a scrimmage that took place during the school’s lunch hour. 

The team now consists of Matthew Austin, Austin Baker, Seth Bellamy, Colby Brooks, Carlton Judd, Bryce Lane, Nicole Stewart, Mason Meadows, Tristan Myers and Chattman Word. 

Each team member takes a role based on their strengths, Steward, a 10th-grader, said. 

“I could never begin to understand the ratios for the gear box,” she said, praising Judd, a ninth-grader, for his skills with the gear box. She went on to say the programmers have to have skills in coding. 

But it was Stewart’s presentation skills that impressed Hadaway.

“I like it because (the competitions) teaches the kids it’s not always about winning,” Boland said. “They are more aware of the need for documentation. … And their scores are based on their promotional, documentation … their interviews. It’s not just about the competition.”

Austin Baker, a 10th-grader who is not in an engineering class, said the team helps with problem-solving outside of competitions. 

Ninth-grader Colby Brooks said he’s learned a lot about team work. 

The team finished in second place during a Dec. 17 competition, making the Robo Panthers 49th of 175 teams in the state. 

The next competition is the divisional championship Jan. 20-21 at the Clay County Fairgrounds. If the Robo Panthers are a top 20 team at the divisional championship, they will move on to state, where scholarship opportunities are available. 

“We’re in the top 20, then,” Judd said. 

“This gives the techie kids the same kind of experience … as the sports kids,” Hadaway said. “If you go to a competition, it’s really competitive. … Our (Georgia-Pacific’s) investment is really small when you consider the pay out. It’s important we’re orienting students at an early age in STEM careers because that’s the way the world is going.”

Palatka Daily News

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